A B&W shot of Noyes Lodge at the edge of Beebe Lake

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By Joe Wilensky

Beebe Lake and its environs offer a cherished respite from the bustle of campus. Students, staff, faculty, and alumni canoe and kayak on its waters, walk and jog its trails, and relax on its shore.

But how much do you know about Big Red’s beloved body of water? Read on for 16 fascinating facts!

Students pass by the Beebe Lake dam as they head to campus.
A scenic commute. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

(And for a cold-weather take on the lake, check out our previous story on Beebe in winter!)

It traces its origin to Ezra himself!

In the late 1830s, Ezra was working for a local owner of plaster and flour mills along Fall Creek. He built a dam to secure hydropower for the mills, forming a swampy pond upstream.

Six decades later, a higher dam created today’s 53-million-gallon lake—supplying water to the expanding campus and powering a hydroelectric plant in the gorge below.


It’s (mostly) shallow!

The vast majority of the 17-acre lake only ranges from 6–10 inches deep—though one channel hugging the north shore is about 4–7 feet deep and another along the south measures about 4–5 feet in depth.

A B&W photo of a bird's eye view of the lake and campus in the 1980s
In decades past, the lake had more plant life on its surface—and North Campus was much less developed. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

It’s named for Ezra’s employer!

The moniker of Ezra’s long-ago boss: Jeremiah Beebe.

In 1899, the year after the second dam created the lake, Cornell’s trustees officially named it after him.


It’s a Reunion hotspot!

Two women and a man laughing as they canoe on Beebe Lake
Class of ’98 alums take to the water during Reunion ’08. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Each June, scores of returning alumni kayak and canoe on the lake. Some have even ziplined over Hemlock Gorge at Beebe’s east end.


It was home to the Hill’s first facility devoted to women’s sports!

A women’s boathouse was built on Beebe’s south shore in 1900. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1926.


Elaborate floats once battled on its waters!

In the 1940s and ’50s, Beebe was the site of a whimsical race held as part of the annual Spring Day celebration, as fraternities and other groups did good-natured battle on its waters.

Some of the homemade floats were motorized, a few included pyrotechnics—and most tried to attack or sabotage their rivals, testing their seaworthiness.

A GIF of floats on Beebe Lake in the mid-1900s
(Rare and Manuscript Collections / Marc Friedenberg)

An annual prank used to turn it (big) red!

A 1960s-era jape saw Beebe dyed a carnelian hue each spring, when members of Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity would put red dye into the stream above—“in an attempt,” the Daily Sun then noted, “to preserve a tradition of unknown origin.”


Panoramic view of Beebe Lake and North Campus in fall
The lake is especially glorious in fall. (Matt Fondeur / Cornell University)

It’s part of a vast nature network!

In 1977, the University consolidated oversight of its natural areas—including Beebe’s water, wetlands, and woods—under what’s now known as Cornell Botanic Gardens. It boasts 3,700 acres, with 17 miles of on-campus pathways.


It got a massive makeover in time for its 150th birthday!

A B&W photo of the 150th birthday party for Beebe Lake, with a crowd on the shore and a cake-shaped float on the water
Celebrating Beebe’s own sesquicentennial. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

In the 1980s, the University launched a major project to dredge, restore, and beautify the lake and its environs—creating new paths and protecting their role as an active floodplain.

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The effort culminated in a 150th birthday party in 1988, complete with a cake-shaped float.


It has a (tiny) island!

The island in Beebe Lake
No fantasy: it’s an island! (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Located just west of Sackett Bridge, it’s named Werly Island (for longtime Botanic Gardens supporter Charles Werly 1927).

Formed out of gravel and silt dredged from the lake during the 1980s restoration, it was engineered to deflect the flow of Fall Creek, allowing sediment to be carried further downstream.


Its historic footbridge connects to trails—and the law!

Students swimming at Sackett Bridge in a vintage photo
Once upon a time, swimming below Sackett Bridge was allowed—and wildly popular. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The scenic stone structure—site of many a Cornellian marriage proposal—is named for University benefactor Henry Woodward Sackett 1875, a prominent lawyer and expert in libel law (as well as a colonel in the New York State cavalry).

Some of Sackett’s cases became legal precedents that have protected journalists from contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources.


It’s a living lab and classroom!

A man hauling a fish in from Beebe Lake
Hauling in a catch. (Sreang Hok / Cornell University)

Beebe’s waters and shore are regularly used by classes in such fields as ecology, natural resources, plant science, environmental engineering.

It’s also home to for-credit phys ed courses, including fly fishing and bass angling.


It appeared in silent films of the early 20th century!

From 1915–19, Ithaca’s Wharton Studios used the area’s gorges and other natural features as dramatic backdrops.

They shot scenes on and around Beebe for films like The Love Lute of Romany and serials including The Mysteries of Myra and The Eagle’s Eye.

A man in an overcoat and bowler hat stands at the edge of Beebe Lake dam in a scene from the silent film "Mysteries of Myra"
A watery setting for 1916’s The Mysteries of Myra. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

It (sort of) has a beach!

In the run-up to its 25th Reunion, a class chose an improvement to Beebe as its fundraising project.

Dedicated in 1991, “Class of 1966 Beebe Beach” is now graced by fully grown sycamore trees and other greenery. Like Werly Island, the land was built up from silt dredged from the lake in the ’80s.


It’s officially part of the University’s ‘front door’!

The freshly landscaped "backyard" of the new Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center at Noyes Lodge.
The Tang Center’s rear terrace looks out over the lake. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

In 2018, the starting spot for campus tours was moved from Day Hall to a renovated space in the former Noyes Lodge at Beebe’s western edge.

Called the Martin Y. Tang ’70 Welcome Center, it boasts a dramatic view of Beebe from its terrace—and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.


And … it helped inspire a shift in the Chinese language!

More than a century ago, Hu Shih 1914 and two fellow students were boating when they capsized and swam to shore. Each penned a poem about the experience—two using classical Chinese, Hu the more colloquial tongue.

Years later—inspired in part by that experience—he helped lead a linguistic revolution in China, fueling widespread literacy as millions shifted to a more accessible vernacular.

A plaque along Beebe’s shore pays tribute to Hu; a North Campus residence hall bearing his name opened in 2022.


Want to learn more? Watch “Beebe Lake: Past, Present, and Future,” hosted by Cornellians contributing editor Corey Ryan Earle ’07 and Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens.

A B&W shot of a woman painting at the edge of Beebe Lake near lily pads
Capturing the lake in paint for a summer session class in 1992. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Top: A vintage view of Beebe and the bygone Japes Lodge, the 1920s-era structure that was once a center of student social life (Rare and Manuscript Collections).

Published July 14, 2023


What are your favorite Beebe Lake memories?

Comments

  1. Stephen Knowlton, Class of 1965

    I think that Alpha Chi Sigma used to die the lake green.

  2. Jill Rowan, Class of 1982

    Pancake House

  3. Myra Boenke, Class of 1980

    Walking over in when it was frozen in winter.

  4. Luis Mariscal, Class of 1996

    When I first arrived during the summer program back in June 1991, one of the first places I discovered and hiked around was Beebe Lake. I’d never been on campus before and my young self thought the lake a precious campus spot and focus of North campus. Little did I know of what lies beyond Beebe Lake, the halls, buildings, quads, Collegetown, the Gardens. It all connects- like nature; what a wonder.

  5. Carol Bagger Skinner, Class of 1949

    Folk dancing on the roof of Noyes Lodge in the 60’s

  6. Virginia Glann Schneider, Class of 1964

    During the summer of 1962, I lived with a family on Forest Rd. and my boyfriend at the time would walk me from the campus to their house often. It was a very special lovely time.

    There was the legend that if you walked around Beebe Lake with someone, you would marry him or her; I did not, however, wind up marrying him.

  7. Kendall Minges, Class of 1970

    I remember ice skating on Beebe in the 1950s with fellow high school students (ithaca High). We would attempt to jump over increasing numbers of empty 55 gallon oil barrels onto a snow pile along the shoreline to help avoid the shock of landing on the ice. Great times and good memories!
    Ken Minges, M.A.,!970

  8. Charlie strauss, Class of 1990

    I spent hours on many days kayaking on the lake from the outing club. We played ultimate kayak,. Played in the falls currents, and found all the submerged pylons of the old sled luge runs that came down from the chemistry department hill. I taught many people how to paddle and roll their kayaks. It was the home of the Cornell outing club. In summer I would some times leap off the Cliff between sacked bridge and the falls into the deep part of the lake.

  9. Susan Rockford Bittker, Class of 1966

    I took canoeing as part of my Phys Ed requirement. Part of the class was in the pool in Helen Newman; part on Beebe. In one class we were told to paddle out on the lake while standing up in the middle of the canoe, turn around and paddle back. Most had great difficulty trying to turn their canoe around. The instructor said “I said turn around, not turn the canoe around. She meant turn your body around! Much easier!!

  10. Eric Key, Class of 1977

    This spring I saw snapping turtles laying eggs on the shore.

  11. Martha Warren McKinney, Class of 1968

    Being a professor’s kid, I grew up in Ithaca. When Beebe froze in winter, the University opened part of it for skating, and what fun we kids had! There was even a warming shed where we could buy cocoa.

  12. Vasiliki (Kiki) Angelopoulos Volkwein, Class of 1962

    After meeting my future husband at Cornell we spent the summer of 1962 having
    lunch together everyday at Noyes Lodge. We visited Beebe Lake with our two
    sons and all five grandchildren the summer of of 2022 to celebrate our 60th
    year together.

  13. Vasiliki (Kiki) Angelopoulos Volkwein, Class of 1964

    My husband (’62 and ’68) and I (’64) have fond memories of Cornell!

  14. Ron Klein, Class of 1976

    Fond memories of hiking around the lake during an evening snowstorm. A winter wonderland.

  15. Paul Jennette, Class of 1987

    I have many fond memories of walking around the lake with my (then-future) wife — I suppose that legend is true! Eating pancakes at Noyes Lodge (“Best by a dam site”) was a treat, and getting soaked on the footbridge by the spray from the water falling over the dam in the spring seemed like a right of passage.

  16. Jacob (Jack) Hershey Martin, Class of 1954

    My Mother, Mary Hershey, class of 1922, broke her nose riding a toboggan down the slide that ended on the lake.

  17. Nelson Spencer, Class of 1961

    “Japes” (the Johnny Parsons Club) on the lake was a favorite hangout for Architecture students in the late ’50s. Good food, cheap drinks and a free piano.

  18. Mark Gibian, Class of 1977

    I have fond memories of Beebe Lake in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As a Townie, I often swam below Sackett Bridge with friends after Middle and High School. We jumped off the bridge and cliffs, and swam up the gorge to the waterfalls, trying to impress the college students.

  19. John Brindley, Class of 1976

    I lived in North Campus high rise 5 in ’74 and ’75 and remember waking to class in MVR Hall. Didn’t matter if it was winter, spring or fall it was a beautiful break from class work. It was a centering exercise allowing me to unwind and take in the natural beauty that so many missed in their rush to get to class. A practice I have continued to this day, I’m aware of the natural beauty around me where ever I might be.

  20. Marty galen, Class of 1964

    I believe it was once the home of the Cornell hockey team

    Marty galen. 64

  21. Priscilla Rachun Linn, Class of 1963

    When I was about seven, I learned to skate on Beebe Lake. I couldn’t understand at first why I was falling down so often when others were breezing along. My extended family went skating often in the winters in the 1950s.

    It was my class, 1966, that created Beebe Beach as a class gift.

  22. Nathanael Greene Slater, Class of 1975

    Walking to and from Forest Home, during the seasons.

  23. Jim Warren, Class of 1970

    Jumping off the bridge and the gorge just upstream. Probably frowned on now.
    (Also a Townie so I know Ithaca in the summer).

  24. Carolyn Handler Miller, Class of 1963

    For me, Beebe Lake was a paradise in both summer and winter. While I was at Cornell (class of 1963), we could swim there in the warm weather and ice skate in the winter. Ice skating on real ice, not a rink, is a special and fairly rare, treat!

  25. Carl Anderson, Class of 1968

    This is about Noyes Lodge rather than the lake itself, but I always associate the two in my mind. My first student employment was evenings in the kitchen at Noyes Lodge. The assistant manager was in charge during those evenings. And Architecture students hung out there every evening, always sitting by the jukebox and invariably playing The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud.” (I thought Architecture students were the coolest!) As the song neared its end, one of the students would knock the jukebox with his elbow, the needle would skid noisily across the record, and the song would start over again. Repeatedly. The assistant manager would become ever redder in the face and ever more insistent that this behavior should cease, until he would storm across the room and unplug the d***d machine. Minutes would pass; the plug would be reconnected; another dime would be found; and the cloud would resume. Etc.

  26. Elsie PL Dentes, Class of 1977

    I grew up in and around Beebe Lake as a townie. My older sisters, Susan (’66) and Martha (’69) were both lifeguards at the lake when there was an official swimming area at Sackett Bridge and low and high diving boards. Tourists would come through all the time and the lifeguards would bet them that I, as a 6-7-yr. old would jump off the bridge(which I did with ease). I earned us a lot of money and then the lifeguards would send me down to Noyes Lodge to get us all milkshakes.
    Summer fun!

  27. Marion Malcolm (Chute), Class of 1961

    My favorite Beebe Lake memory is of skinny dipping at nighttime during the summers I spent in Ithaca!

  28. harriette scannell morgan, Class of 1952

    meeting my brother there when we were both at cornell,3 years apart. HARRIETTE SCANNELL MORGAN 1952

  29. Gerald R Miller, Class of 1961

    Stehen Knowlton is correct. The lake was dyed GREEN, not red. For the initial year, I was one of the 4 members of Alpha Chi Sigma who waded into the lake from the south shore at early twilight on the beautiful Saturday of spring weekend 1960 carrying several pounds of Fluorescein which fluoresces a bright yellow-green. By about 9am the Triphammer Bridge was crowded with students and their weekend dates. The falls were especially gorgeous.

  30. Stephen L. Rosen, Class of 1959

    Yes, we (Alpha Chi Sigma) dyed the lake a bright, fluorescent green on Spring Weekend for a few years after the powers that be banned the boat races (which had degenerated into battles, leaving the lake a mess).

  31. Mary Giannini

    I loved walking around the lake. I took canoeing for Phys Ed my very first semester – it was a great introduction to water completely unlike the ocean (in Hawaii) of my childhood.

  32. Jarrid Whitney, Class of 1994

    As a member of the wrestling team during training runs, we would sometimes cross over Sackett Bridge. And at the time, the freshmen were required to jump in! I definitely did it!

  33. Otto Richter, Class of 1952

    Campus Pranks
    One of the major events every Spring Weekend during the 1950’s was the Inter-Fraternity Crew race held on Beebe Lake on Saturday mornings. There were two prizes: one for original design (eg a pirate ship, floating cake of Ivory Soap, etc.) and one for speed.
    In the Spring of 1951, I was chairman of the Weekend Committee.
    While waiting for a lecture to begin at 9:00 AM Friday, someone approached me to ask “Did you know that they are DRAINING THE LAKE!
    I guessed that the dam workers were doing it without realizing we were holding an event the next day.
    I cut class and rushed to the hydraulic plant to see what was happening. The men were there and as upset as I was. Some pranksters had snuck into the plant during the night and opened the gates in hopes of ruining the race.
    The workers had already closed the gates and thought there might be just enough water the next day to proceed with the race. Fortunately, they were correct, and the event proceeded on schedule,

  34. Bayla (Schlossberg) Singer, Class of 1960

    I had an early-morning part time job in a small department library on campus, and had to get there before breakfast was served in my freshman dorm. I would stop at Japes for a tuna fish sandwich and a half-pint of ice cream; my mother somehow didn’t think that was a nutritious breakfast!
    I loved seeing the seasons change, morning by morning.

    I also loved skating on Beebe, until one day my partner slipped and fell with his face almost under my skate! I managed to turn aside, and miss him, but never forgot his look of sheer panic.

  35. Judith Shulman Weis, Class of 1962

    After thinking about it for four years, I finally got up the courage to jump off the bridge once exams were over senior year. Better late than never!

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